Go back to article: Networks of knowledge and power: working collaboratively on the HoNESt project

The case of the UK

Unlike some other country historians on the project, when working on the UK I was confronted with a vast array of existing literature about the British experience of nuclear power in the twentieth century (Butler and Bud, 2017). However, the majority of research on the UK’s experience has focused on the development of nuclear weapons, protest opposed to the development of those weapons, or has discussed histories of civil nuclear policy with little discussion of the public’s interactions with it. Since its very beginnings, this division between controversial nuclear weapons, and less controversial nuclear power, has been promoted by key industry and political figures. The Queen’s speech at the opening of the UK’s first nuclear power station, at Calder Hall in 1957, began by constructing a narrative which separated nuclear weapons as ‘a terrifying weapon of destruction’ from nuclear power, which would be ‘harnessed…for the common good of our community’ (The National Archives, AB 16/1864). This was reflected in the growth of major campaign groups such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), which were ‘single issue’ well into the 1970s and 1980s (to the extent that early CND pamphlets suggested that weapons scientists should be redeployed to the civil nuclear effort) (Luckin, 1990). This divided narrative is, in part, why the British civil nuclear power programme has been relatively uncontroversial compared with the rest of Europe.

This is not something which I would have felt comfortable writing before becoming a member of HoNESt. If one looked at the UK alone one would conclude that here nuclear power has been highly contested at the local and national level since its very beginnings, and public challenges to the expansion of facilities, testing for waste repositories and new nuclear stations have directly shaped the nuclear industry and forced a more consultative and dialogic approach in its efforts to communicate with the public (Curd, 1990; Luckin, 1990; Welsh, 1993). Organisations such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and the Council for the Preservation of Rural England[3] have fought for the public’s right to be consulted, worked with trades unions to end at-sea-disposal of nuclear waste, and ensured that all nuclear facilities are careful to be ‘good neighbours’ by sponsoring local leisure and cultural amenities (Bolter, 1996; Parmentier, 1999). However, when compared with similar nations in Western Europe, such as France and West Germany, the public’s response to nuclear power specifically has clearly been more muted. There have been no national-scale protests of tens of thousands, very little violence, and very few heavy-handed interventions by the state.

Figure 6

Black and white photographs of violent and peaceful nuclear demonstrations

Comparing anti-nuclear protests and responses in Wyhl, Federal Republic of Germany, 1975, and in Lincolnshire, UK, 1986. The difference in the State’s response is clear here

Whilst reactor accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima raised new concerns about national nuclear programmes across Europe, the British public remained relatively convinced that British nuclear power was safe. Examining the public’s acceptance of government plans for new nuclear power stations after 2006, social scientist Karen Bickerstaff termed this restrained public response ‘reluctant acceptance’, and it is clear from our historical work that this attitude is not new (Bickerstaff et al, 2008). A key question which has developed because of our ability to easily compare and contrast these differing national experiences is to explain how and why the British public have largely accepted nuclear power even as reactor accidents abroad have shaken confidence elsewhere. Working on HoNESt allows us to take a transnational and comparative approach to understand how this type of response has been constructed in the UK and how attempts to construct similar narratives elsewhere have been less successful, creating historical research with direct policy relevance.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/180907/007